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HE TOO BELIEVES! Like his colleague, Nicholas Kristof believes in high-minded reform: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 24, 2009

Imagine all the progressives: How bad can mainstream reporting be? Consider last Friday’s AP report about the CBO’s ten-year budget projections.

For the most part, Andrew Taylor presents a competent report about the CBO’s numbers. And uh-oh! The CBO numbers aren’t looking real good. For example, the CBO is projecting much larger deficits than the White House projected last month:

TAYLOR (3/20/09): President Barack Obama’s budget would produce $9.3 trillion in deficits over the next decade, more than four times the deficits of Republican George W. Bush's presidency, congressional auditors said Friday.

The new Congressional Budget Office figures offered a far more dire outlook for Obama's budget than the new administration predicted just last month—a deficit $2.3 trillion worse. It's a prospect even the president's own budget director called unsustainable.

Oof! Presumably, this will present large political problems—except inside Panglossian precincts of the liberal web. In some parts of the liberal web, observers seized on the following part of Taylor’s report—the part which was deeply incompetent:

TAYLOR: Long-term deficit predictions have proven notoriously fickle—George W. Bush inherited flawed projections of a 10-year, $5.6 trillion surplus and instead produced record deficits—and if the economy outperforms CBO's expectations, the deficits could prove significantly smaller.

Good lord, that’s bad!

That $5.6 trillion surplus projection was always “flawed” (overstated) in certain ways, as everybody always knew. (In the course of Campaign 2000, every big news org reported this—once.) But people! Among other things, the projection assumed the continuation of then-current tax policies—and President Bush then proceeded to pass a series of very large tax cuts! What resulted didn’t reflect a “flaw” in a “fickle” budget projection—it reflected large reductions in tax rates! Taylor’s construction was comically bad—but some liberals rushed to embrace it. You see, its blundering favored our side. (All right! If you must, go ahead—just click here.)

In a rational world, progressives would moan at that kind of reporting. In this case, we cheered for it. Why?

We ask because of an e-mail we got asking why we’d want to criticize Keith Olbermann. We think the e-mail raised so many key questions that it deserves to be answered in public. We’ll post the e-mail at some point this week, then work from its issues next week.

But:

In our view, the liberal and progressive movements have important public obligations. We mustn’t behave like a gang of hacks, in the manner which defines so much of the modern press world. And yet, wherever we look, we see a nation ill-informed, ill-advised, as parts of the liberal/progressive world decline into forms of Kewl Kiddism.

Our mailer wondered why we would care. We think he asked some very key questions—although some readers will shake their fists at our plainly outrageous replies.

Special report: David Brooks believes!

EPILOGUE—HE TOO BELIEVES: All major pundits tell the same story about the state of the public schools. “Reformers” are the heroic heros—and those who oppose them are villainous villains (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/09). By definition, “reform” in this context means merit pay, and the elimination of tenure.

For ourselves, we’re not necessarily opposed to merit pay, and scaring our teachers may well help our schools. We are opposed to silly novels, written by pundits who type from a script. That said, no one seems to believe “reform” scripts more truly than the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof. On Sunday, Kristof topped his colleague, True Believer David Brooks, offering this latest pleasing piece about the need for “reform” in the schools.

Kristof focused on DC superintendent Michelle Rhee. In our view, Rhee seems to have some strengths and some weaknesses; we damn straight hope she does well. (We think it’s good that she’s so aggressive.) True Believers, though, will only type their novels One Pleasing Way:

KRISTOF (3/22/09): The most unlikely figure in the struggle to reform America’s education system right now is Michelle Rhee.

She’s a Korean-American chancellor of schools in a city that is mostly African-American. She’s an insurgent from the school-reform movement who spent her career on the outside of the system, her nose pressed against the glass—and now she’s in charge of some of America’s most blighted schools. Less than two years into the job, she has transformed Washington into ground zero of America’s education reform movement.

In truth, you could tell that life story a different way. (She has spent her career overstating her success in the classroom, rising to prominence and earning large pay on the strength of improbable, unproven claims.) But Kristof heroically favors “reform;” he’ll present his heroine accordingly. In his account, poor Rhee had “her nose pressed to the glass” as she “spent her career on the outside of the system.” In this way, Kristof describes the wilderness years—the years when Rhee fled Baltimore’s schools, proceeded to Harvard, then became a big star in New York.

Nose pressed to the glass! Sorry—that’s clownishly bad.

We think it’s good that Rhee is aggressive, though we think she tends to paint from a limited palate. (Frighten the teachers well!) But to see the shape of True Belief, go ahead and read Kristof’s column.

The gentleman Truly Believes in “reform.” That said, we were struck by three claims which appear in his piece. How poorly do newspapers cover the schools? Just consider how hard it is to see these claims resolved:

The state of Washington’s schools: Just how bad are the schools in DC? At one point, Rhee thunders—just as she should:

KRISTOF: “D.C. is known as the most dysfunctional and worst-performing school district in the country,” she said, noting that the failures are particularly acute for poor students and members of minority groups. A black child from a low-income family in Washington enters kindergarten at the same level as a comparable child in New York City but is two years behind by the fourth grade, she said.

Is that true? Are low-income black kids in DC really two years behind low-income black kids in New York—by the fourth grade? For ourselves, we’d guess they aren’t—but we wouldn’t bet the house. It’s possible Rhee’s remarkable statement is true—though you can’t really tell from the published NAEP data. (Rhee may have more data than those which are publicly offered. It’s fairly clear she’s referring to the NAEP.) In its Trial Urban District Assessment (click here), the NAEP reports fourth- and eighth-grade test scores from eleven large cities, including New York and Washington, most recently for the 2006-2007 school year. Overall, Washington’s test scores seem to be worst among these cities; only Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles seem to challenge DC in the futility sweepstakes. But in fairness, we say the scores seem to be worst, because the NAEP doesn’t thoroughly break down its apples and oranges. You get scores for black kids, and for low-income kids—but you don’t get scores for low-income black kids.(Yes, this can make a difference.) It isn’t entirely possible to assess Rhee’s statement with the data which are publicly available—although DC’s scores on this assessment seem to be very bad. By the way: DC seemed to do substantially better in eighth-grade reading. In DC, the average black kid scored 238 in eighth-grade reading, compared to 240 in New York City. (This includes all black kids, not just those who are low-income.) According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale would equal one school year. Very roughly.

How bad were DC’s schools as of 2007? Given the wealth of data the NAEP provides, it’s amazing to see how rarely the Washington Post or the Washington Times has tried to address that question. Or the New York Times, of course. Timesmen are good at churning out cant, less involved when it comes to real data.

That rise in DC test scores: Rhee has “improved test scores,” Kristof quickly states. Soon, he presents more detail:

KRISTOF: This is Ms. Rhee’s second school year, and there is upheaval and recrimination—but also progress. Test results showed more educational gains last year than in the previous four years put together.

We’ve seen that highlighted claim before, but it seems a bit hard to interpret. DC adopted a new set of tests (the DC-CAS) in the spring of 2006; it’s hard to compare current scores with those from any years before that. That said, passing rates on the DC-CAS rose in 2008, at the end of Rhee’s first year. In the elementary grades, 46 percent of students passed the reading test (scored “proficient”), up from 38 percent in 2007. In math, 40 percent scored proficient in 2008, up from 29 percent in 2007.

Those are the most current data. What might those data mean?

Kristof’s a True Believer; by contrast, we believe in the role of the journalist/sceptic. If Kristof’s paper would get off its keister and do the job God once assigned it, it would ask at least three questions about those rising scores:

First: Were the DC-CAS tests in 2008 as difficult as those in 2007? We have no reason to believe they weren’t. But a journalist would want to be shown. Novelists tend not to ask.

Second: Is there any chance that somebody’s cheating? When teachers and principals are threatened or frightened, they sometimes do start cheating. This is one of the obvious down-sides to Rhee’s head-banging style, of which we generally approve. There are ways to search test scores for signs of such conduct. You’ll see a journalist doing that around the time polar bears fly.

Third: What about “teaching to the test?” Sorry, but what follows sounds a bit shaky. In January 2008, the Post’s Theola Labbe described a special Saturday test-prep program—a program which seemed to be open only to certain students. Yes, there’s a possible problem:

LABBE (1/19/08): D.C. public schools will launch a weekend academic program this month to help more than 7,500 students at 91 schools pass standardized tests in the spring, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced yesterday.

Saturday Scholars, a 14-week program that will cost $1.5 million, is designed for students who are on the verge of passing the reading and math tests but need extra help, officials said. The program is voluntary and will take place on Saturdays at 47 schools citywide starting Jan. 26.

What could be wrong with a program like that? Nothing really—except for the fact that it seemed to involve only certain kids, kids “on the verge of passing.” (This type of selective emphasis has been a problem all over the U.S.) Lower-achieving kids don’t get the extra help, because they’re plainly going to fail; kids who are plainly going to pass don’t get the extra help either. If this program bumped up achievement among this slice of kids in the middle, it would bump up DC’s passing rates in a way that presumably wouldn’t be found elsewhere in the score distribution. For most observers, the bump in passing rate would suggest an overall gain in achievement—an overall gain which doesn’t exist. Did such a thing happen? We have no idea. A journalist who wanted to know could check data other than “passing rates” to get an idea.

So doggone easy: For forty years, it’s been a part of True Belief; journalists are required to say how easily we could eliminate the so-called “achievement gap.” Kristof checks that box in this passage, seeming to misstate a study as he does:

KRISTOF: The reform camp is driven partly by research suggesting that great teachers are far more important to student learning than class size, school resources or anything else. One study suggests that if black kids could get teachers from the profession’s most effective quartile for four years in a row, the achievement gap would disappear.

But if we’re reading correctly, that isn’t what the study says or suggests. (To ponder the study in question, click here; Kristof linked to it from this earlier high-minded column.) In our reading, the study suggests that “the black-white score gap” could be closed if black kids could get teachers from the profession’s most effective quartile for four years in a row—while white kids were getting teachers from the profession’s least effective quartile. (See the study’s numbered page 8.) Beyond that, the study’s upbeat presentation seems to turn on a few other assumptions. (Can we tell who the most effective teachers will be?) But Kristof’s high-minded notion has started to spread; we just saws it yesterday at Al Sharpton’s education site. In presenting it, he shows us how high-minded he is. He proves he knows that all kids are the same, without having to dirty his hands by moving beyond standard script-points.

High-minded columnists love to display their high-minded interest in low-income kids. But their newspapers often make little attempt to do any real reporting.

High-minded scripts are easy to type; you just keep repeating that key world, “reform.” It feels very good to read such tales—tales about Major Manhattan Stars who had “their noses pressed to the glass.” Novels like that will always feel good—and it seems that they’ll always be with us.